South Africa

PHOTO ESSAY

Lily Mine: Prayers, pain and hope mark mothers’ two-year vigil for their dead children

Rose Mkabi (centre), mother of Yvonne Mnisi, during the prayer ceremony at Lily Mine. Mkabi said, ‘It is very painful for me. When we entered the mine it felt as if I could see Yvonne in front of me and she was going to return home with me. But I am happy that I was able to pray because I asked God to intervene.’ (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Five years on, the mothers of three mine workers who died in an accident at Lily Mine in Mpumalanga still hold a vigil at the scene of the incident.

On 5 February 2016, Lily Mine reported that more than 70 mine workers were trapped underground after a mineshaft collapsed. All were rescued, except for Pretty Nkambule, Yvonne Mnisi and Solomon Nyirenda. The three were in a container above ground that plunged into a sinkhole, trapping them underground. Rescue efforts continued for days, but proved futile.

An image showing the sinkhole and abandoned buildings. Lily Mine has been under business rescue since the collapse. Former mine owner Vantage Goldfields has been embroiled in a legal battle against potential investor Arqomanzi after a court interdict against the implementation of an amended business rescue plan. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Five years later, the mothers of the trio, Fiona Nyirenda, Lomvimbo Mavuso and Rose Mkabi, still seek closure. Camped about a kilometre from the Lily Mine gate, with several former miner workers and community members, they live their lives in pain, prayer and hope as they wait for the mine to be reopened and for the container to be retrieved so they can lay their loved ones to rest.

The group set up camp two years ago in an effort to grab the government’s attention.

Florence Mathebula (left) and Lomvimbi Mavuso (right) clean dishes as they prepare to make dinner. Because no one in the group has a means of earning an income, the group relies heavily on donations from friends and family to survive. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Group leader Harry Mazibuko says: “We arrived on 30 April 2019. Why? It is simple, because it was over three years and we heard nothing from the government, from our union, from the mine management, from the business rescue practitioners in terms of when and how they were going to retrieve the bodies. 

“We are crying for help, we need help, we need to be assisted. We believe our colleagues are inside that container.”

Former mine worker Lucky Bothma sits in the men’s-only shack watching TV. The group set up camp two years ago in an effort to urge the government to retrieve the container and missing bodies. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Lomvimbo Mavuso, mother of Pretty Nkambule said, “It’s very painful. I can’t sleep at night. Every day all I can think about is when will they get someone to retrieve the container. I think about my daughter. She left behind a five-month-old daughter when she was sucked into the ground with the container. Once they are retrieved will I be able to get rest.” 

Fiona Nyirenda, the mother of Solomon Nyirenda, said, “This thing is traumatising me mentally and physically. We need help to retrieve our children so that they can be buried in peace. I think about them, I think about what is happening to them underground. These are my thoughts every day. 

Former mine workers outside the men’s shack. They have lost their income since the collapse of the mine in 2016. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“I am here because we need government intervention. Once we get our kids we will return to our houses. I don’t care if my house gets broken into while I am here. At least by being here will it help in bringing our children back.”

Nyirenda, who is diabetic, and has suffered a heart attack, says the emotional pain she endures is more difficult than her health issues. She finds comfort from the other mothers. She says some days are really difficult for her and has vowed to camp outside the mine until her son’s body is retrieved.

Mealtime in the women’s section. The women have their dinner after concluding their evening prayers. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Despite being victimised and subjected to a couple of attacks at their camp, the group remains steadfast and vows to remain camped outside the mine. They arm themselves with prayer, not only for their protection, but also for the retrieval of the container. 

Men and women sleep separately. The women are in bed at 5am during a prayer session. Three prayer sessions are held every day. Despite being victimised and subjected to a few attacks at their camp, the group remains steadfast and vows to remain camped outside the mine. They arm themselves with prayer, not only for their protection, but also for the retrieval of the container. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“We start our day at 5am with prayer,” said Mazibuko. “We believe in prayer; there is nothing else we can do but pray. We pray that our government can see things the way we see it, that they can have mercy on us. We pray for South Africa as a whole and for unemployment. Again at midday we pray and share any new developments that have taken place. The last prayer is at 6pm. We have our supper after that and go to bed. That is how we spend our days.”

Mother of Pretty Nkambule, Lomvimbi Mavuso, sweeps the camp area at sunrise. The women find comfort in one another and have vowed to return to their houses only once their children’s bodies are retrieved. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Daily Maverick joined the group as they conducted a prayer ceremony at the mine. The group was allowed only 30 minutes to conduct their prayer and was not allowed to go close to the sinkhole for safety reasons. 

Mary Sambo (back of image) talks on her cellphone. The group regularly receives visitors and supporters which act as a huge source of comfort. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Commented Rose Mkabi, mother of Yvonne Mnisi, after the ceremony. “When we entered the mine it felt as if I could see Yvonne in front of me and she was going to return home with me. But I am happy that I was able to pray because I asked God to intervene.”

The group makes its way to Lily Mine for a prayer ceremony. The group was allowed only 30 minutes to conduct the ceremony and was not allowed to go close to the sinkhole for safety reasons. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Mkabi said her daughter was a precious person and very helpful around the house. She was a source of financial help for her entire family. She described her as having a good heart and as being very loving. 

Mother of Pretty Nkambule, Lomvimbi Mavuso, sits at the gate of Lily Mine while she and the rest of the group await permission to enter the mine to conduct a prayer ceremony. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Mazibuko said of the prayers: “We do it once a month [at the mine] for the families. We are Africans; we have our cultures and our traditions. So it falls on that angle, to go to the mine. The three candles represent each of the mine workers. We are lighting the way for them so that they can find a way to come out. We are using prayer to make them surface.

“The closer we get to the site the better it is. We wish we could get closer but we can’t, we are law-abiding families. We believe the prayers are working. Spiritually we have experienced positive results. They [the mothers] become emotional, they connect. The spirits connect with their loved ones. So we need to go to the mine once a month. It’s a very special prayer.”

Rose Mkabi (left), mother of Yvonne Mnisi, sits with Mary Sambo at the gate of Lily Mine while they await permission to enter the mine to conduct their prayer ceremony. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Lily Mine has been in business rescue since the collapse of the mine. Potential investor Arqomanzi has been embroiled in a legal battle against former mine owner Vantage Goldfields and business rescue practitioners. Arqomanzi has successfully interdicted the implementation of an amended business rescue plan. 

Former mine employee Bishop Michael Shongwe reads verses of the bible as he leads the prayer ceremony at Lily Mine. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The interdict sparked off a protest by former Lily Mine employees and community members calling for Arqomanzi to withdraw its case against Vantage Goldfields. They said the court outcome delays the process of reopening the mine and the retrieval of the remains of their three colleagues.

The Mpumalanga High Court is expected to issue a final order in May. 

Former mine employee Bishop Michael Shongwe leads the prayer ceremony at Lily Mine. He is considered to be the group’s spiritual father and is a pillar of strength at their camp because of his knowledge and expertise. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Herman Mashaba from ActionSA, who has been championing the case of the families, has indicated that the party has filed a motion to join the Mpumalanga High Court proceedings. 

“ActionSA’s legal team will file papers urging that the court see this matter as not only a commercial consideration but one that has generated enormous levels of suffering for the families and former miners at Lily Mine. 

“We want the court to ensure that, whatever it rules, it is binding, time-bound and that we can hold all parties to account to adhere to the tightest of deadlines.” DM

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  • Arquamanzi claim they have voting control which is how they are trying to force the adoption of their plan, which is detrimental to creditors including many small businesses in the Barberton area.
    Long after the business rescue began, they bought a R10m loan to Vantage, from Standard Bank and are using the R175m value of the security for this as the basis for saying they are the largest creditor and can exercise the associated voting rights. Cynical opportunism at the expense of the community. Expose them.

  • Maverick talk of the hardship, loss and feelings of the families, which are all very real and important. The do not even mention rescue efforts and recovery effort in exceptionally dangerous conditions with high exposure to further loss of life. Or the fact that recovery now is virtually impossible without further loss of life. They also do not explain why the mine employees are supporting the efforts of Vantage company to re- open the mine. I am afraid Maverick reporting is graduating to sensationalism and crowd chasing more and more of late. For a long time supporter this is very concerning. Sharpen up your focus and editing please….. urgently.